Considering History: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Imagining Slavery’s Family Separations

This column by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.

As historians and journalists such as Martha Jones, Anthea Butler, DeNeen Brown, and others have eloquently reminded us in recent weeks, one of the core practices of the American system of chattel slavery was the separation of children from their parents (among other purposeful and consistent family divisions). Even when parents and children were not sold away from each other (an all-too common way to achieve the separation), they were often kept apart so fully by their slave-owners that neither this foundational human relationship nor its crucial influences on the children’s identities and lives were allowed to develop or flourish.

In the opening chapter of his monumental Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An America Slave, Written by Himself (1845), escaped slave turned abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass recounts what such forced separations meant for his relationship with his mother: “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. … She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”

Despite Douglass’s narrative and other contemporary depictions of such horrors of slavery, in 1850 most white Americans were either unaware of or indifferent to slavery’s inhumane practices and effects. For many white Americans, of course, African American slaves were more property than full fellow humans, an attitude enshrined in the Constitution’s 3/5th clause and legally reified by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. Even for those Americans who were inclined to see slaves as human, there were a number of widespread narratives and myths that made it more difficult for white Americans to understand or be outraged about the horrors: slavery was a regional issue and largely unfamiliar to the rest of the nation; slaves were generally well treated and stories of horror were rare and overstated; slaves had never known other circumstances and were unaffected by situations and emotions that might impact other communities or cultures.

One of the most popular and influential American cultural works of all time would soon change those myths and perspectives for many Americans, however. On June 5, 1851, the abolitionist newspaper The National Era began publishing in weekly installments Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; after a 40-week serialization, the novel was published in book form on March 20, 1852. Over the course of its serialization Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a national phenomenon (on the few occasions when Stowe missed a weekly issue the newspaper was inundated with letters of protest), and the success carried over into its publication: the book sold 3,000 copies on the day of its release, sold out its first printing almost immediately, and went on to become the second best-selling American book in the 19th century (after only the Bible) and one of the nation’s most enduring and influential cultural works.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sizeable novel with many characters and plotlines, but at its heart are the stories of three slaves whose lives are consistently defined by family separations and their profoundly human effects. The loving couple (who define themselves as husband and wife, although they cannot be legally married under slavery) Eliza and George Harris learn that their beloved young son Harry is going to be sold away from them and choose to run away instead, producing a series of harrowing sequences such as Eliza and Harry’s famous escape across the icy Ohio River. And the title character Tom Shelby is sold “down the river,” away from his wife and children, and spends the rest of the novel trying to survive the horrors of slavery and find a way to be reconnected with that family. His famous connection with young Evangeline “Little Eva” St. Clare, the angelic daughter of his second owner, clearly serves as a replacement parental relationship for the patient and paternal Tom.

Stowe’s success in creating these deeply human slave characters and stories is the novel’s greatest achievement, made all the more impressive by the fact that she had spent no time in the slave south prior to writing the book (which she largely completed while living in Maine). Stowe did live for a time in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky, and encountered escaped slaves there as part of the city’s Underground Railroad efforts. She highlighted those and other contemporary influences on the novel — including the slave narrative The Life of Josiah Henson (1849) and Theodore Weld’s edited collection American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839) — in her follow-up book A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854).

Yet while those works do complement and support Stowe’s book, biographers and historians have discovered that she read many of them only after completing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was instead primarily a work of imaginative empathy, of constructing African American slave characters — and many others, but especially these central characters — with multi-layered human identities and perspectives that contribute to believable and moving stories of the horrors of the system of slavery. And Stowe’s empathetic imagination clearly produced the same effect for thousands of her fellow Americans, readers across the country for whom this cultural representation of slaves and slavery opened up new ways of thinking about the lives and experiences of their fellow Americans in bondage. Eliza, George, Tom, and others came to vivid life for Stowe’s readers, and through them new images of slavery and its defining savagery became possible and widespread.

While the novel remains an important part of 21st century American society, we have other cultural forms today that more closely mirror the immediacy of the 19th century novel’s communal impact: photography and photojournalism, multi-media news features, and social media activism. As we are seeing every day, such cultural forms help Americans imagine and respond to unfolding horrors. Where we go from there is, as it was in Stowe’s era, an open and crucial question.

It’s Just So Much Tommy Rot

You’ve probably never given it a second thought. But I have. After all, my name is Tom.

In our politically correct, super-sensitive society, the name Tom finds no protection, for it is maligned with impunity. It’s been that way throughout history. I’m sure my mother didn’t consider it when she named me after Virginia’s colonial governor and revolutionary war hero, Thomas Nelson, who was slighted by history (it was he, not Washington, who cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown). Poor Tom.

So where’s the proof that Toms are assaulted in our daily lexicon? You don’t have to look far:

You get the gist. It’s not just so much Tommy rot. My fellow Toms and I have become little more than a negative figure of speech.

To bolster my assertions, I did a little research on the origins of Thomas. The name, which is biblical, literally means “twin.” I missed a few Sunday school classes, so don’t hold me to the finer points. But as I understand it, Jesus found himself with two disciples named Judas. To avoid confusion, he renamed one of them Thomas. (I guess I should be grateful because obviously I wouldn’t like to carry Judas around with me all day.)

Apparently, not long after he got his new name, Thomas began questioning his benefactor and undoubtedly the first pejorative use of the name Thomas found its way into the history books. I doubt he knew how widespread and long-lasting his skepticism would be remembered. A Book of Thomas was written, but it was labeled by some as distasteful and redundant in the mid-second century and, obviously, never made the final cut. Clearly a pattern began to emerge.

Fast forward in history a thousand or so years and we find Lady Godiva riding bareback through the streets of Coventry dressed only in her long flowing hair. As the legend goes, villagers agreed to close their shutters and look away. But not Thomas. Curiosity got the better of him, and he took a little peek. Whether or not he was struck blind or dead for being caught in the act, this much is sure: Generations of Thomases have paid the price for his indiscretion ever since.

About the same time as Lady Godiva’s ride, it was apparently great sport in England to watch the antics of insane people in asylums. Reality TV had its roots here, I fear. This pastime led to some very unfortunate nicknames — Tom O’Bedlam and Tom Fool — what else? Even the renowned William Shakespeare feared no repercussions for denigrating the name Tom, for by then the name was already synonymous with the worst of society. Indeed, it had become part of the common vernacular. In play after play, Toms are mere simpletons, degenerates, and fools. In King Lear, for instance, “poor Tom’s a’cold” is portrayed as a madman living in a hovel and then later, just to make sure the point is clear, he is labeled a “fool.” Ouch. I’m sure not everyone living in a hovel was a Tom, but even back then it would have been in poor taste to have called them by name, so we’ll never know.

Brace yourself, there’s more. Jumping across the pond to America, we find the pre-Civil War best seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even today, over 150 years after it was written, nobody wants to be called an Uncle Tom. The evil Uncle Tom moniker has stuck. It’s unfortunate for me and perhaps millions like me, for a quick analysis of census data reveals that indeed in America today there are at least 800,000 Uncle Toms, maybe even a million. On those occasions when I’ve ventured into public with my nieces and nephews, I’ve laid down the rule: If we get separated, go back to the designated meeting place and whatever you do, don’t yell, “Uncle Tom, where are you?!”

The pejorative use of the word Tom isn’t limited to males either. Our sisters are almost equally maligned. In 18th century London, for example, a Tom was regarded as a lady of the night, derived no doubt from Tomrig or Tom Tart, defined in the dictionary as “sexually loose” women. Why, even Tomboy was once more than today’s affectionate term for a boyish little girl. Originally, the term was a euphemism for “bold, immodest women” as well as “rude and sexually uncontrolled” girls.

Promiscuity, thy name is Tom.

Admittedly, there are some Toms history holds in high esteem. But they’re few and far between. There’s Thomas Hardy. Thomas Payne. Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Edison. Thomas More, but maybe he shouldn’t count because, after all, he was beheaded.

My wife tells me I’m too sensitive. Be grateful there’s no such thing as a Dear Tom letter or a Port-a-Tom, she tells me.

But truth be known, it does bother me. Sadly, despite my protest, the whole thing draws no sympathy from my two brothers — Dick and Harry.